Saturday, 16 June 2012

The Hög Edsten Pommelcap

In discussion of one of the oldest items in the Staffordshire Hoard - k711, it is impossible not to mention the Hög Edsten sword pommel-cap. A little-known Scandinavian find from pre-Viking west Sweden, the Hög Edsten pommel-cap shares the antipodal boar motif seen on 711, and has been described as the most beautiful intact execution of migration-period Germanic gold-and-garnet cloisonne work on a pommel-cap in the archaeological record.

The beauty of this piece is undeniable, but why is it so little-known, and in light of more recent discoveries, what stories can this piece tell us?
Made of high-purity gold, and decorated with comparatively large, neatly cut garnets, Hög Edsten is a breathtaking piece. Conforming to the classic "cocked hat" morphology of Migration-period pommel-caps which would've adorned the upper-guard of a kingly sword, Hög Edsten is special for a number of reasons.

Hog Edsten Pommel-cap with boars highlighted
Most notably, Hög Edsten is one of only a few gold-and-garnet cloisonné pieces which have quite clearly been designed to show pictures. While cloisonne pommel-caps are now considered to have been fairly numerous in the early Germanic world, it is rare to see one in which garnets and their cells have been cut to show anything more than a decorative pattern. Notable other examples of use of gold-and-garnet cloisonné to show pictures include the impossibly intricate decorative plates that adorned the kingly Sutton-Hoo purse, and, in particular, the stunning Sutton-Hoo "shoulder-clasps" which also display boar imagery, though arguably in a more defined and less cryptic style.
The image of boars heads may have been included for apotropaic reasons, invoking the protection or blessing of the warrior deity Freyr-Ing. The design on each side of the pommel-cap is subtly different, but the general image bears close resemblance to the fascinating Staffordshire Hoard piece k711.

Sutton-Hoo Shoulder-Clasps
The other feature which sets the Hög Edsten piece apart from it's contemporaries is its complexity. While other gold-and-garnet pommel-caps of the Migration-Period tend to have between two and 5 faces of garnets, with each garnet surrounded by complete cells leaving only one flat facet exposed per garnet, the Hög Edsten piece is augmented by a total of 12 prismatic garnets along the corners of the piece, bringing the total number of garnet-adorned faces to 9. These prismatic garnets, cut in chevron-shapes, are positioned in groups of 3, along the curving transition between the front and top faces, each cut to follow the curve precisely.
The complexity of this piece surpasses even the kingly pommel-cap of Sutton Hoo, and has, perhaps, only two parallels. The first, the pommel-cap of Skrävsta, Sweden, also featured lines of garnets along the front-top transition, although this piece is so heavily damaged that it is difficult to see what it might have originally looked like. The other comparable piece, of Sturkö, is set apart by foregoing a metal-organic sandwich for its upper guard (as would by typical) in favour of yet more garnet cloisonné work.

The Hög Edsten pommel-cap was found in Kville Parish in Bohus county, situated near the west coast of Sweden. This location sets the find apart from much of the richest Migration Period finds from Sweden which originate from east coast, or the isle of Götland. Indeed, it is likely that, during the time of the find's creation, the area in question would have belonged to a different kingdom; perhaps the homeland of the Geatish hero Beowulf. Until the later Middle Ages, this region belonged to Norway.

The pommel-cap was found by a farmer in the 1860s, while ploughing. It is said he found it near a burial mound called "Grönehögen" -the green hill. 19m in diameter and 3m high, the size is considered to indicate a chiefly burial.
The same year, the farmer in question found more gold; a few small gold bars, rings, a fragment of a gold bracteate and a small golden pendant in the form of a miniature book. The following year, he found even more gold; three small male votive figurines made from gold foil, and yet more gold rings and spirals. It is notable that these finds did not originate from the mound itself, but from the surrounding field. It seems likely that these pieces belonged to a treasure hoard hidden near to the landmark tumulus, and were not associated with it. Attempted excavation of the mound in 1869 found a central cairn inside, but it was flooded, forcing the excavation to be aborted. No artefacts were found, and further investigation of the mound has not been attempted.

Grönehögen -metres from the Hog-Edsten find

The surrounding area is rich in other historic landmarks, including Neolithic dolmen, and, allegedly, a higher concentration of Bronze-Age rock carvings than anywhere else in the world. Iron-Age landmarks are more  rare, but include a nearby "domarring" or stone circle, consisting of 22 stones that may have served as a "thing place" -a location for local meetings.
1km west of the Hög Edsten site, at Högsten-Nedergarden a weapon-hoard consisting of a single sword and 36 spears was found in 1895.

When and where was the piece made, and to whom did it belong?
The dating of the Hög Edsten find is a matter of much debate. The piece has been considered to fit into the latter half of the 6th Century, corresponding with the beginning of the Vendel period, and placing it somewhat earlier than most gold-and-garnet pommel-caps from Britain and mainland Europe. As with all garnet cloisonnee work, expert on such jewellery, Gerta Arrhenius has suggested this piece is of Frankish origin. Analysis of adhesives allegedly supports there being a Frankish origin for the piece, though I have struggled to find clear information on this.

However, various experts have challenged both this dating, and the supposed Frankish origin of the find.
All stones of the Hög-Edsten pommel-cap are low-calcium almandines, and mineral analysis has suggested a very close relationship between this piece, and the pommel-cap of the Sutton-Hoo sword. Indeed, it has been suggested that both originated from the same workshop, and were produced at roughly the same time. If true, this would place Hög Edsten in the early 7th Century. There are certainly stylistic parallels; both pieces display limited use of quatrefoil garnets, and only limited use of stepped garnets which dominate native Frankish examples. However, while the Hög-Edsten has a smooth shape, the Sutton Hoo pommel-cap has a sharper profile lined with filigree work, a technique barely used on the Hög-Edsten piece.

The ability of garnet mineral analysis to provide information beyond the origin of the stones seems questionable, and the old assumption that there would have been perhaps one or two continental workshops producing gold-and-garnet cloisonnee weapon fittings for all Germanic kingdoms must surely be challenged in light of the Staffordshire Hoard. It seems reasonable to suppose that, on the whole, while small almandine garnets would've originated from a single source, richer kingdoms would've imported these materials and hosted their own jewellery workshops.

Vallstenarum Sword, Götland
The Hög-Edsten pommel-cap bears some significant similarity, in terms of style, to that of the ring-sword of Vallstenarum, Götland. The pommel-cap of the Vallstenarum sword displays curved-edge garnets like the Hög Edsten piece and its general morphology is quite similar, even down to details such as the contoured pin-fittings. While this resemblance may not be sufficient to prove a Scandinavian origin for either piece, it is certainly worth noting that the most similar pieces to Hög Edsten have been found outside of the Frankish Empire. It is also worth noting that while the imagery of Hög Edsten closely matches that of Staffordshire Hoard piece k711, the gold-and-garnet pieces of the Hoard are of a very different style to this, or any other Scandinavian find.

On balance, while a Frankish origin cannot be ruled out, the piece may be of Scandinavian or even Anglian workmanship. The similarities to the Sutton Hoo treasure are notable, but these too may too have been the work of Frankish craftsmen. However, given the concentration of gold-and-garnet cloisonné work in England thanks to the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, the notion of such pieces being produced by more local workshops seems feasible. While garnets of such pieces would've found their way to western kingdoms from mines in Bohemia, via trade routes running through the Frankish Empire, the origin of any complete piece is difficult to prove. What we can be sure of is that, at some point in their history, such pieces did indeed belong to Scandinavian and Anglian kings and thegns.

Hög Edsten Replica by George Easton
How the magnificent Hög Edsten pommel-cap found its way to western Sweden we shall perhaps never know, but if it is indeed of Frankish origin, references in Beowulf may hold the key; In four instances, a piratical raid by King Hygelac of the Weder-Geats is mentioned. It was said that Hygelac led his men against the Hetwares -a tribe on the Rhine, but was slain when they received Frankish reinforcements. Beowulf, accompanying him, killed the king's slayer and returned with "thirty items of battle gear".
Such a link seems far too convenient, but it certainly does capture the imagination. Whatever the story of the Hög Edsten pommel-cap, it remains one of the most fascinating and beautiful pieces of migration-period jewellery, and deserves not to be neglected simply as an old find.

Arrhenius, A. B. Svärdsknappen från Vallstenarum på Gotland.
Arrhenius, B. & Carlström, D. (1985) Merovingian garnet jewellery: emergence and social implications. , Kungl. Vitterhets-, historie-och antikvitetsakad.
Bimson, M. & Leese, M. N. (1983) The characterization of mounted garnets and its value as archaeological evidence. Vendel period studies: transactions of the Boat-Grave Symposium in Stockholm, February 2-3, 1981. , Statens Historiska Museum. pp.83.
Bruce-Mitford, R. (1986) The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial: Some Foreign Connections. Angli e Sassoni Al Di Qua e Al Di l Del Mare: 26 Aprile-10 Maggio 1984. , 143-218.
Eriksson, T.(2012) Concerning the Hög-Edsten Sword Pommel-Cap (Personal Communication)
Mortimer, P. (2011) Woden's Warriors. Woden's Warriors: Warfare, Beliefs, Arms and Armour in Northern Europe during the 6th-7th Centuries. 1st edition. Cambridge, Anglo-Saxon Books.
Overing, G. R., & Osborn, M. (1994) Landscape of desire: partial stories of the medieval Scandinavian world. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

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